Will the earth ever possess intelligent beings far greater than today's humans? If so, will they be our companions, our conquerors -- or ourselves?
It's generally beyond the scope of this blog to speculate about the future further ahead than 20 or 30 years from now. By then, we expect that exponential general-purpose molecular manufacturing will have made such profound impacts on earth and on human society that much of it may be unrecognizable.
One of those profound impacts could be superintelligence, perhaps resident in a global network of atomically precise advanced computers built by nanofactories.
But, you know, we may not have to wait even that long. It is conceivable (however improbable) that before the advent of productive nanosystem technology, the relentless march of Moore's Law may bring us computers powerful enough to wake up and become self-aware -- and then to begin a process of recursive self-improvement that quickly will leave human intelligence in the dust.
Too farfetched? Well, maybe, but...
The Indonesian volcano Talang on the island of Sumatra had been dormant for centuries when, in April 2005, it suddenly rumbled to life. A plume of smoke rose 1000 meters high and nearby villages were covered in ash. Fearing a major eruption, local authorities began evacuating 40,000 people. UN officials, meanwhile, issued a call for help: Volcanologists should begin monitoring Talang at once.
Little did they know, high above Earth, a small satellite was already watching the volcano. No one told it to. EO-1 (short for "Earth Observing 1") noticed the warning signs and started monitoring Talang on its own. . .
EO-1 is a new breed of satellite that can think for itself. "We programmed it to notice things that change (like the plume of a volcano) and take appropriate action," explains Steve Chien, leader of JPL's Artificial Intelligence Group. EO-1 can re-organize its own priorities to study volcanic eruptions, flash-floods, forest fires, disintegrating sea-ice—in short, anything unexpected.
Is this real intelligence? "Absolutely," he says. EO-1 passes the basic test: "If you put the system in a box and look at it from the outside, without knowing how the decisions are made, would you say the system is intelligent?" Chien thinks so.
And now the intelligence is growing. "We're teaching EO-1 to use sensors on other satellites."
Admittedly, it's a long way from the EO-1 to the HAL 9000. But I expect there will be some big surprises for us in the next few decades, and superintelligence could be one of them.